Pandemic and Printing
As COVID-19 spread worldwide, printing industry suppliers and businesses initially turned inward, as did most other organizations. Protecting employees, their families, and customers while keeping the company going were the owners’ and managers’ primary concerns. Eventually, they began looking outward, to doing what they could to help others.
Most printers leveraged their existing equipment and personnel to provide personal protective equipment (PPE). For example, AMI Graphics, a renowned provider of wide-format printing, developed a transparent protective barrier that could be produced using existing equipment and employing their staff. AMI’s InteliShield Protective Barriers provided an entry into new markets – schools, retail stores, banks, and polling places.
Some printing companies went beyond producing social distancing signage and floor decals. Minuteman Press (Levittown NY) printed hand sanitizer labels and used its 3D printer to manufacturing face shields. As owner Michael Levy noted, “We understand the fight and are armed with print technology to help both our client base and now, our heroes in medicine as well.”
Digital print technology providers also entered the fray. Massivit 3D Printing Technologies, a large-format 3D printer provider, put its worldwide distributor network and more than 150 customers to work making face shields. Customers who participated in the initiative received design files optimized for 3D printing and a printing gel donation from Massivit 3D.
In less than two weeks, HP leveraged its 3D printing capabilities, engineering acumen, and personnel to design and begin producing a CPAP mask cross-connector approved for use by hospitals in Spain. HP shared a variety of COVID-19 part designs with its 3D printing customers and partners while also making the plans available online. The company and its partners have manufactured more than 5 million applications, including parts for ventilators, nasopharyngeal test swabs, hands-free door openers, and other PPE to date.
The advent of the first COVID-19 vaccines offers us a glimmer of hope that operations will return to normal. In the meantime, the printing industry continues to do its part to stem the pandemic.
With 3D printing’s strategic role in the supply chain validated, will its use expand? Technology providers, including Canon, HP, Konica Minolta, Mimaki, Ricoh, Xaar, and Xerox, sell 3D printers to manufacturing, medical, military, oil and gas, and other industries. While unit sales are a fraction of their 2D printer sales, the 3D printer market is growing significantly.
Before the pandemic, Wohlers Associates predicted additive manufacturing products and services revenue would increase from $11.9 billion in 2019 to $117.5 billion by 2029. No doubt 2020 sales will not be as robust as Wohlers forecast initially, but the ten-fold increase by 2029 forecast is sound.
When considering the 3D printer market’s growth, keep in mind that 2D printer manufacturers have imaging technologies that apply to 3D printing. For example, jetting technology is core to three of the seven 3D printing technologies: binder jetting, material jetting, and powder bed fusion. Their products are suited to rapid, iterative prototyping, to producing tooling, jigs, and fixtures, and manufacturing finished goods and spare parts.
However, for 2021, the vendors will not find much opportunity in the 2D printing industry. The primary reason is that 3D printing uses by traditional printing companies do not require equipment sales. Service bureaus like Protolabs and Xometry can produce 3D printed prototypes and custom parts such as:
- Modifications to equipment that add new capabilities
- Jigs and fixtures that improve assembly performance and quality
- Replacement parts for older, unsupported prepress, press, and bindery equipment
Some printing companies will invest in low-cost material extrusion printers by Mimaki and others. However, their use will mainly be for prototyping parts that will then be produced by a conventional machine shop or a 3D print service bureau.
The market for 3D printed finished goods is very different. In 2021, printing companies serving the promotional products, out-of-home advertising, retail display, packaging, events, exhibition, architecture, and travel industries will be active buyers of 3D printers. They will make point-of-purchase displays, billboards, building and event signage, design models, and more.
3D Printed Monkey King, Set Against a Wide-Format Printed Background, by SID Installation Art
Demand for these items, often as one-off or very short-run pieces, will grow as the pandemic fades and the economy strengthens. On-demand 3D printing will minimize their customers’ investments and supply chain risks while waiting for those markets to achieve pre-COVID growth.
The 3D printing opportunities in other printing markets are limited. Certainly, transaction documents, direct mail, booklet, catalog, and periodical publishing operations don’t need 3D printed finished goods. Few are the number of printing companies with diversified customer bases that have expanded into 3D printing as Minuteman Press has.
These print markets will not broaden their use of 3D printing in 2021. Instead, rebuilding from the pandemic and optimizing production operations will be their priority, with objectively evaluating the 3D printing opportunities that their print business down the list of things to do.
The 2D printing industry has barely scratched the potential of 3D printing, something that will remain fundamentally unchanged in 2021. Nevertheless, we will see increasing use of 3D printing by companies that print consumer-facing items while its use in other print markets will stagnate.
Accordingly, your response to the 3D print opportunity will vary:
- 3D print technology providers – Focus on aerospace, automotive, manufacturing, medical, military, oil and gas, and other industries by creating a marketing program that utilizes a combination of fact-based webinars with actionable advice and small group, in-person technology demonstrations
- Printing companies in the retail, events, architecture, and travel industries – Invest in 3D printing hardware, software, and materials that will either establish or grow your market by objectively evaluating printer ease of use and speed, output quality, and personnel training and staffing requirements
- Printing companies in other industries – Employ 3D printing to speed your recovery from the pandemic by using it to optimize your current equipment and assembly processes while modifying equipment so it can produce new products
1 Wohlers Report 2020; http://www.wohlersassociates.com/2020report.htm